Posted on 1/21/2014 10:55 AM by Alan Gettelman and James K. Lathrop

Standard NFPA 286 arrangement with the panels mounted on the fire test room wallsCan your toilet partitions withstand a fire?

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the International Code Council (ICC) develop compliance parameters relating to fire safety and building construction. However, the codes and standards they develop are not mandatory until adopted by jurisdictions such as city, county, state, or the federal government. 

Regardless of current jurisdictional adoption, failure to comply with the latest standards will serve as evidence of not doing what a prudent person would do.  Why? Because it is likely that eventually these codes and standards will be adopted in your area. Specifying restroom toilet partitions that are up to the latest codes ensure that your facility will continue to meet fire and life safety standards.

Revised Toilet Partition Requirements

The following codes and standards require that when high density polyethylene (HDPE) is used an interior finish, it must be tested in accordance to and comply with NFPA 286 Standard Methods of Fire Tests for Evaluating Contribution to Wall and Ceiling Interior Finish to Room Fire Growth.

  • 2009 and 2012 editions of the International Building Code (IBC) and the International Fire Code (IFC) model codes published by the ICC
  • 2012 edition of the NFPA 101 Life Safety Code
  • 2012 edition of the NFPA 1

Polypropylene (PP) was included the 2012 Editions of the IBC, IFC, NFPA 101 Life Safety Code, and NFPA 1. The four model codes previously described now clearly regulate toilet partitions as an interior finish, contrary to some previous interpretations.

PP and HDPE Testing

With the increased use of PP and HDPE as building materials, memberships of all four codes concluded that ASTM E-84 Standard Test Method for Surface Burning Characteristics of Building Materials testing was insufficient. NFPA 286 is the preferred method because it is superior at determining the hazard of an interior finish, as opposed to the traditional “tunnel test” used in ASTM E-84. This is especially true when testing plastics that melt and fall to the floor of the ASTM E-84 tunnel. Note that both IFC and NFPA 101 apply this new testing requirement to existing interior finishes.

An independent research laboratory used the standard unmodified NFPA 286 room-corner test on 1-inch-thick HDPE solid panel toilet partitions. These tests showed that untreated HDPE toilet partitions do not meet the requirements of the NFPA 286 room-corner test. The laboratory did not test treated HDPE toilet partitions.

The two photographs are from separate tests of the NFPA 286 room-corner test. The first photograph is of the “standard” NFPA 286 arrangement with the panels mounted on the fire test room walls. The second photograph shows the HDPE panels being tested as they would be installed as toilet partitions in the field.

Many Toilet Partition Materials are in Compliance

Painted metal, stainless steel, solid color reinforced composite, compact laminate, high-pressure laminate, and treated solid plastic toilet partition materials comply with the model codes. It is recommended that facility managers, contractors, and distributors insist on full-scale, unmodified NFPA 286 test compliance documentation from PP and HDPE toilet partition manufacturers.

Alan Gettelman is vice president/external affairs for Bobrick Washroom Equipment.

James K. Lathrop is vice president of Koffel Associates.